Thursday, November 1, 2012

Following Jesus: It’s not a Matter of Booty or Bounty

Why would anybody follow Jesus? He offered no military victories against Israel’s Roman enemy, no booty, no get-rich-quick schemes, not even any protection from the persecution that would inevitably come, as His disciples distanced themselves from their Mosaic religion. In fact, He told them exactly what they could expect:

  • "All this I have told you so that you will not go astray. They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God.” (John 16:1-2)
Not a very appetizing prospect! Why then would anyone follow Him? What was the attraction? Besides this gloomy picture of the future, Jesus never stroked their egos. He never said anything like this:

  • You men are really first class. Choosing you was the best thing that I had ever done. You’re such quick learners and, oh, so spiritual!
Never a word of encouragement – not the way to build a following! However, His disciples knew that He came from God. His many miracles bore this out. His prophetic words also bore witness to His identity. In His final discourse with His disciples, He prepared them for His departure, telling them what they could expect so that they would “not go astray,” when the world tried to kill them.

He had to prepare them for the tribulation to come. If they were prepared and if they knew that persecution was part of the God’s plan for their lives, they could have peace in the midst of it:

  • "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)
If we know that “trouble” (“tribulation,” NASB) is a necessary component of blessing, then we can welcome it, and the Apostles did so! After they had been beaten by the Sanhedrin, they rejoiced:

  • The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. (Acts 5:41)
God’s Word serves as necessary preparation for adversity. It reassures us that things are going according to plan. If you are experiencing terrible pain after open heart surgery, but your surgeon reassures you that the pain is an indication that your heart is healthy and responding just as he had hoped, you will be able to endure.

Jesus prepared their fearful doubting minds in many ways:

  • "You heard me say, 'I am going away and I am coming back to you.' If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe.” (John 14:28-29)
Believing in the midst of adversity is key. It is easy to believe when everything is going well. Therefore, they had to be prepared with correct expectations and not promises of prosperity. Jesus prepared His Apostles. He prophesied that they would all abandon Him (John 16:32). This turned out to be particularly humbling for them, because they had been riding a spiritual high and had just confidently proclaimed, “we believe that you came from God” (John 17:30). And this was right before they had abandoned both Jesus and their faith.

I don’t think it was merely a matter of Jesus’ miracles and even His prophetic words that kept His disciples in the faith. Despite His, at times, harsh sounding words, I think that they perceived that Jesus loved them in a special and individual way. John even refers to himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved. I suspect that they all felt that each was the disciple whom Jesus loved.

However, when we examine His words closely, I think that His love for His disciples becomes apparent. Following His discourse with His Apostles, Jesus addresses the Father in words that illuminate something that we ordinarily don’t see. For example:

  • "I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word.” (John 17:6)
From our earthly perspective, they didn’t even understand His Word, let alone obey His Word! Just to illustrate this point, I will quote each one of their statements or misunderstandings in the context of this final discourse:

  • Thomas said to him, "Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?" (John 14:5)
  • Philip said, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us" (John 14:8), unaware that they had already seen the Father in Jesus.
  • Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, "But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?" (John 14:22)
  • Some of his disciples said to one another, "What does he mean by saying, 'In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,' and 'Because I am going to the Father'?" They kept asking, "What does he mean by 'a little while'? We don't understand what he is saying." (John 16:17-18)
  • Then Jesus' disciples said, "Now you are speaking clearly and without figures of speech. Now we can see that you know all things and that you do not even need to have anyone ask you questions. This makes us believe that you came from God" (John 16:29-30), but they were just about ready to disown their faith
These foolish statements weren’t unusual for the Apostles. They often seemed clueless about their Master, and Jesus wasn’t hesitant to let them know this. However, when Jesus talked to His Father, we perceive a different perspective. From these heights, we are invited to view an entirely different landscape, one through which we learn that the disciples “have kept Your Word!”

The evil prophet Balaam had also been granted a view from this mountain-top. God had opened his eyes so that he could penetrate the haze and see reality from the perspective of God. And this is what he saw:

  • The oracle of one who hears the words of God, who sees a vision from the Almighty, who falls prostrate, and whose eyes are opened: "How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” (Numbers 24:4-5)
  • "He has not observed iniquity in Jacob, nor has He seen wickedness in Israel. The LORD his God is with him, and the shout of a King is among them.” (Numbers 23:21)
There was probably little that was “beautiful” about Jacob’s tents, especially after wandering 40 years in the desert. Balaam was beholding a transcendent reality. Clearly, there was gross “iniquity in Jacob” and no shortage of “wickedness in Israel,” but this is not what God was seeing! He sees a different reality, a transcendent one. He sees the end from the beginning. Jesus also saw His Apostles in their glory, a glory where we are already seated in “the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephes. 2:6).

If we are already seated in the heavenlies, why can’t we see this? Why does our God obscure our vision and make us walk in darkness? We are not ready for the light. As Jesus told His disciples, there were certain things that would not yet be good for them to see:

  • "I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.” (John 16:12)
We too cannot bear to behold the beauty of the tents of Israel and certainly not our own glory. I think that it was C.S.Lewis who said that if we could see our glory, we’d worship each other. But I think that there are many other ways that we can’t bear the full dose of His glorious light.

Why then do we follow Jesus? It’s not simply because of what the disciples had seen with their eyes – the resurrection had restored their faith (Acts 1:3) - but also because of what they dimly perceived through their eyes of faith.

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